Books: Unlike Victoria, they were amused

PLEASURE WARS The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud by Peter Gay, HarperCollins pounds 20
AT THE beginning of his latest book, Peter Gay includes three quotations - one in English, one in French and one in German, without translation. What does that tell us about the man? That he is lower-middle- class being pretentious, or upper-middle-class being patronising, or just a clever man - he is Professor of History at Yale - who is carefree with his erudition? The distinction is important because the central theme of his massive, five-volume series about the Victorian bourgeoisie has been that because they were such a vast, amorphous class stretching, in Zola's words, "from the common people to the aristocracy", they defy the conventional stereotypes that bedevil our thinking about them.

In previous installments Gay highlighted their diverse, often contradictory attitudes towards sex, love and aggression. In this final volume, his subject is their paradoxical attitude to the arts. He demolishes the commonly held perception that the middle-classes were stuffy, prudish philistines, opposed to anything new or risque. In fact, he asserts, they were the chief innovators throughout the century.

By painstakingly analysing the major cultural movements of the Victorian era, which he rather liberally seems to define as spanning two continents and encompassing the years 1789-1914, he concludes that from Romanticism through to Modernism, the bourgeoisie consciously attempted to impose a new set of democratic values upon a largely reluctant populace. "Historians, politicians, editorial writers and cultural prophets made change their business," he writes. In fact, if one thing could be said to define the Victorian imagination it would be their preoccupation with innovation. It became such an obsession that Jacob Burckhardt lamented in 1843: "Everybody wants to be new, but nothing else."

But it was not just the energy and enthusiasm with which the Victorians pursued novelty that marked them out from previous generations. It was also their determination to make their inventions accessible to a wider public. In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Gay reveals how middle- class factory-owners, patrons and collectors in America and Europe, established museums, galleries and orchestras to introduce art to as many new consumers as possible.

Men such as Hermann Leo, who invited Charles Halle in 1848 to awaken "the dormant taste" of Mancunians for good music, and Nikolaus Vogt, founder of the Frankfurt Museum, who denounced the "poverty-stricken one-sidedness" of his times, were typical of a new breed of cultural philanthropist who blossomed within the new economic consensus. Many of them were as unimaginative and commercially obsessed as some of today's sponsors of the arts. Gay's chief point is that the sheer breadth of cultural activity gives the lie to those historians who portray the Victorians as hypocritical prigs with no artistic sensibility. In fact, his argument begs a profound question as to whether those critics, such as George Steiner, who argue that America today is little more than a "museum culture" can be right? With so many people involved in producing, copying, displaying and selling culture, how could some of it not fail to be innovative and interesting?

Gay does not, however, deny that the rise of the Victorian bourgeoisie created a great deal of resentment, not least amongst themselves. A new breed of critic rose up to attack everything they stood for, even when they weren't quite sure what that was. King of the "bourgeoisophobes" was Gustave Flaubert, who depicted the middle-classes as cowardly, ignorant and censorious. In 1855 he wrote to a friend, "Yes! This is on the whole a rotten country! And we are in a shitty mess! What makes me indignant is the bourgeoisisme of our fellow writers! What merchants! What dull imbeciles!"

By the 1870s and '80s, paradoxically, most prominent writers, including Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg and Shaw, were saying much the same thing. Gay casts doubt over the achievements of some of these self-professed bourgeois- haters, suggesting that our reverence for them may reflect more our own political agenda than any intrinsic merit in their work. Strangely enough, their protests against an "establishment" which in reality they were part of, do sound remarkably similar to those made by some of today's young British artists against supposedly fogeyish institutions such as the Royal Academy.

In the case of Flaubert Gay goes further, suggesting that his anger was prompted more by his own bourgeois inclinations than by any genuine sense of grievance. He sees a remark made by Flaubert's lover, Louise Colet, that Flaubert was just a "well-read bourgeois" as proof of his suspicions.

Critics of Gay's work have repeatedly expressed doubts about his psycho- analytical method of interpreting historical figures, which they dismiss as simplistic and reductionist. In effect, he sees psychic conflict as the primary motivation behind all historical actions. In a revealing coda to the book, Gay defends his technique by pointing out that Freud himself acknowledged the importance of other factors, such as schooling and reading. Nevertheless it is noticeable that references to Freud are less pronounced here than in some earlier volumes.

More problematic is Gay's apparent inability to sift through the mountains of material without adding a qualifying clause to every statement and beginning each new paragraph with, "On the other hand..." Given the dramatic nature of his reappraisal and the perceptiveness of his observations, would it be facile to suggest that Gay is harbouring repressed urges of his own?

Ironically, it was Lytton Strachey, the writer who brought Victorian- bashing to new heights of intensity, who said that the historian's first duty is to simplify and clarify. "Ignorance," he wrote, "is the first requisite of the historian"; or, as Henry James put it, "The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use."

Despite such carping, Peter Gay deserves to be congratulated for what will surely be a landmark in the corpus of revisionist literature about the Victorians. In destroying our assumptions about them, he has given us a fascinating insight into our own anti-bourgeois obsessions.